Not everyone agrees on exactly what Web 2.0 entails. As with all great buzzwords and concepts, people are already predicting what Web 3.0 will be. Will rich internet applications dominate it?
RIAs are still in their infancy, but when done right they're incredibly powerful tools. When Google launched Google Maps a few years ago, it opened people's eyes to the fact that web browsers can do much more than merely display pictures and text.
Currently, there are four mainstream mechanisms being used to develop RIAs.
Flash/Flex: The first horse in the RIA race was Flash. Adobe/Macromedia with its Flash/Flex infrastructure is still the leader in online video. Combining the programming capabilities of Flex makes an incredibly powerful toolset for creating internet applications. Flash has strong penetration and when used effectively can enhance your website.
Silverlight/.NET: Microsoft is barreling ahead with Silverlight, a browser plug-in to deliver interactive web applications that should be taken seriously. The company launched Silverlight earlier this year and is promoting it heavily to its large partner development network. Silverlight is delivered to a browser via XAML, which is a text-based markup language. This makes it easier for search engines to scan Silverlight vs. Flash.
OpenLaszlo: Finally, even though you don't see it much, there's an open-source platform for RIAs called OpenLaszlo. Initially developed as a proprietary system by Laszlo Systems, it was made open source in 2004. Not wanting to be left out of the RIA race, IBM--consistent with its embracing of Linux and other open source--has helped propel OpenLaszlo. The company worked with Laszlo Systems to use the open source Eclipse development platform with OpenLaszlo. Applications for OpenLaszlo can be run in Flash or in DHTML.
One current issue with Flash is that while search engines can index it, they don't index it as well as with text because Flash is a binary compiled file. That's why most websites aren't entirely created in Flash. Accessibility and keyboard navigation can be issues with these rich applications as well. If you don't have a mouse or can't use one, then you'll have problems with these technologies. Also, while the plug-ins have sizable browser penetration, they're problematic for some users.
What It Means for You
What does all of this mean for business owners in the Web 2.0 era? For the tech entrepreneur it means new opportunities. Many traditional client server applications are being pressured to move their applications to the web. Entrepreneurs can potentially displace client server apps with new innovative web applications. For other entrepreneurs, you have to evaluate your business and what specific benefits you can get from adding rich features to your website.
There will be other emerging technologies in the RIA area. The combination of these rich features will help trends like social networking continue to evolve. We'll likely see many websites with more drag-and-drop-type features in the next few years. The online/offline office also will continue to develop as predominant internet companies compete with Microsoft Office for the next generation office applications. Web applications will continue to become more robust and feature rich than ever before.
Frank Bell is Entrepreneur.com's "Web 2.0" columnist and a principal at IT Strategists, a leading business and technology consulting firm in Southern California. He has consulted with many internet startups, as well as companies such as Yahoo!, Vivendi Universal, Disney, Toyota, Nissan, Deluxe Digital Studios, AEG, Sony and Ticketmaster.